Newsletter #21 (Spring 1999)

On the Road with Birth Control

"Never mind if you don't like speaking, Margaret," wrote Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in an August, 1915 letter imploring Sanger to organize a cross-country speaking tour, "one talk on the general purposes of your work would be sufficient" (Elizabeth Gurley Flynn to MS, August 1915, LCM 8:679). Other radical friends including Emma Goldman and her inner circle, Caroline Nelson, Alexander Berkman and Ben Reitman, prodded Sanger to confront her enemies and give voice to her self-replicating pamphlet, Family Limitation, that was pulling people to labor halls and down-town auditoriums to discuss publicly what was so rarely mentioned even in private. As Ben Reitman wrote at the end of his own propaganda tour:

O brave Margaret Sanger! You can be glad even if they hang you or send you to the penitentiary for life, your pamphlet has found its way into nearly every hamlet or village in America, and dozens of other men or women have republished your pamphlet or similar ones and scattered them broadcast throughout the land and Anthony Comstock, though aided by all the powers of government or hell, cannot stop this stupendous movement (Ben L. Reitman, "The Tour," in Mother Earth, September, 1915).

Following her year-long exile in Europe in the fall of 1915, Sanger considered a national speaking tour to bolster a defense fund for her pending Woman Rebel trial (she had been arrested on obscenity charges a year earlier, prompting her flight overseas) and build on publicity generated by the arrest and imprisonment of her husband, William, for giving a copy of Family Limitation to one of vice-crusader Anthony Comstock's henchmen. But the sudden death of five-year old Peggy Sanger in November altered the timing and likely the outcome of her trial. After many postponements, the state dismissed its case against Sanger in February of 1916, leaving her, for the time being, less martyred than manipulated, but nevertheless poised for further publicity. She announced at a February "victory" celebration at the Bandbox theater in New York that she would commence a coast-to-coast lecture tour in April. She wrote to friends and supporters in March asking them to write to her at once and "tell me the capacity of the largest lecture hall" in their vicinity. (MS to Friends, March 13, 1916, MSM C1:124.)

Sanger organized her tour so that she would appear in cities where there already existed an organization or, at the very least, a working group dedicated to free-speech issues or the "small family" question, that could be energized to form a birth control league and eventually clinics. In 1915 Emma Goldman had bulldozed through many of the cities Sanger would visit, speaking on a host of subjects, including the war, homosexuality and birth control; thus both birth control supporters, including many labor leaders and socialist organizations, and the guardians of public morality – from mayors to church leaders to constabulary – were agitated well before Sanger packed her bags.

After drafting her stump speech – a composite of writings completed in Europe and trial preparation materials – Sanger confronted one last problem. Elizabeth Flynn referred to it earlier: Sanger despised public speaking. By this time she had given several major speeches, including a well-attended appearance in Fabian Hall in London the previous year. But never had she confronted the kind of overflowing auditoriums and packed meeting halls she knew awaited her night after night.

. . . the anxiety that went into the composition of the speech was as nothing compared to the agonies with which I contemplated its utterance. My mother used to say a decent woman only had her name in the papers three times during her life – when she was born, when she married, and when she died. Although I never shrank from publicity . . . I was frightened to death. Hoping that practice would give me greater confidence, I used to climb to the roof of the Lexington Avenue hotel where I was staying and recite, my voice going out over the house tops and echoing timidly among the chimney pots (Autobiography, 192-3).

Sanger claims she never, over her long career, felt comfortable speaking in public, and often turned ill just before an event, but was propelled by her cause, the outpouring of affection, and anger aroused over attempts to silence her. Not far into the 1916 tour it became clear that Sanger performed exceedingly well in public, appearing as a gentle society woman emboldened by a new gospel. As one attendee at Sanger's Portland, Oregon lecture in June later wrote: "I was impressed with her modest demeanor and her low, soft voice. I had thought of her wielding a hatchet, with a strident voice, daring anyone to knock a chip off her shoulder. On the contrary, she seemed to be a perfect lady who would qualify for membership in the Colony Club" (William Fielding Ogburn, "Recollections" in "Our Margaret Sanger" MSM S77:1000). A newspaper described Sanger as "essentially feminine in appearance," noting that "in her countenance is apparent none of the boldness of the professional propagandist" (The Morning Oregonian, July 1, 1916). Her surprisingly approachable manner and diminutive size proved far less intimidating than Goldman or Flynn – both fiery speakers and imposing presences – and may have enabled Sanger to better connect with many apprehensive members of her audience.

Following a trial lecture in New Rochelle, New York on April 16th, Sanger embarked on a three-month, eighteen-city tour that would land her name in the pages of the nation's major newspapers.

I spoke in Washington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Racine, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, St. Paul and Minneapolis. Then I turned back a little and went down to Indianapolis to speak at the National Convention of Charities . . . The next stop was in St. Louis, then Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco. After two weeks in that glorious State, I went up to Portland, (Oregon), by boat; spoke also in Seattle and Spokane (Washington), and thus ended my first and maiden tour in U.S.A. (MS to Charles and Bessie Drysdale, August 9, 1916, MSM S1:638-640).

In a note scrawled on a draft of her tour speech Sanger wrote that she gave it 119 times. Notes and variations suggest she altered it as she went, adding more references to birth control and tightening longer sections. She gave ample background on her work, put forth a strong economic argument for family planning, and logically established birth control as something scientific and moral. Unfortunately it is not one of her stronger speeches; it meanders and has little momentum until an autobiographical section near the end. Packed audiences of largely working-class folk with crying infants in makeshift meeting halls on hot summer nights most likely grew restless waiting for the prize – a description of actual contraceptive methods (which Sanger generally avoided due to the threat of arrest) and a copy of Family Limitation.

Newspaper articles announcing Sanger's appearance and sometimes following-up on the results of her visit proved more effective in reaching large numbers of people, something of which Sanger was clearly aware, judging by her well-spun remarks to reporters and intuitive sense of how to make news. Sanger's statements to the press were terse and efficient. She told one paper: "Birth Control does not necessarily make for either larger or smaller families; it simply insures, through the mother's knowledge, a square deal and a fair chance for whatever children are born" (1916 Scrapbook, Sanger Papers, Library of Congress, not filmed). In print Sanger less often reverted to radical-speak or wrapped her subject in the language of utopianism as she was apt to do on the podium. She made every effort to pull the image of birth control out of the gutter and even, at times, away from its identification with militant radicalism. She clarified that the movement was not about abortion ("we do not advocate illegal operations"). And she demonstrated her strong European ties and intention of following the example of Holland's public health success with contraceptive clinics. Sanger gave the impression in her newspaper interviews that the birth control movement was not built from the ground up but from the pinnacle of society and academia down, with support from some of the greatest minds of the era (she never failed to mention Havelock Ellis and H. G. Wells). "Our work," she told one paper, "is conducted on a high plane" (St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 8, 1916).

Controversy on the tour, as throughout Sanger's career, greatly increased press coverage and aided the cause immeasurably. In St. Louis, a threatened boycott by local Catholic hierarchy forced the manager of the Victoria Theater to lock the doors of the building just prior to Sanger's scheduled appearance. After shouting to reporters that she planned to sue the theater for $5000, Sanger stood on top of a car and briefly addressed the estimated 2000 people who filled the streets. She then led them down to another theater but found its doors locked as well. She began to give her speech from atop the car until police broke up the scene and cleared the street for traffic. (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 25, 1916.) "The effort to suppress Sanger," wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "has advertised her propaganda, piqued public curiosity, aroused popular interest, and gained public support from many who otherwise might be indifferent" (quoted in My Fight for Birth Control, p. 147).

In Portland, Oregon three men were arrested for selling Family Limitation at one of Sanger's meetings. Sanger left to deliver lectures in Washington State but returned to Portland to attend the men's trial. During her short absence the mayor and city council passed an ordinance banning Family Limitation. At a meeting to protest the ordinance, Sanger and several women passed out revised copies of the pamphlet. Four of them, including Sanger, were arrested and jailed for a night. All were found guilty; the men fined ten dollars a piece and the women simply released, the court opting to continue the matter indefinitely. An incensed Sanger told reporters: "I consider it a cowardly decision . . . It's practically the same old story, that knowledge, if it's hidden away on the musty bookshelves or in the narrow confines of the medical profession, is moral; but as soon as it is distributed among the working people the same book becomes obscene" (The Morning Oregonian, July 8, 1916). The trial prompted newspapers to hash out the issue in editorials and letters sections and sprung forth a flurry of requests to Sanger and the birth control league in Portland for copies of Family Limitation.

Opposition groups effectively silenced Sanger in Akron, and authorities demanded a preview synopsis of Sanger's speech in Milwaukee, but overall, Catholic and conservative attempts to muzzle or mollify Sanger only catapulted her cause farther to the front of the local papers. By the end of the tour Sanger felt victorious. "In another year," she wrote British suffragette and birth controller, Edith How-Martyn, "[birth control] will become a vital fact here. Its already bigger than the laws against it" (MS to How-Martyn, July 18, 1916, MSM C1:144).

Sanger conducted similar cross-country tours several more times in the 1920s and 1930s, but they never generated the kind of attention or results of her maiden tour. The 1916 trip launched a number of city and state birth control organizations that still exist today as affiliates of Planned Parenthood of America. Leagues formed almost immediately upon Sanger's departure in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Spokane, Detroit, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis. Organizations in some of the larger cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago formed in 1915 and early 1916, but had little direction and relatively small memberships prior to Sanger's visits.

Still apt to display modesty in 1916, Sanger told How-Martyn she deserved little credit for arousing "this country out of its Rip Van Winkle slumber of Puritanism" (MS to How-Martyn, July 18, 1916, MSM C1:138). But she refused then and later to properly acknowledge the likes of Flynn, Reitman and Goldman who primed the podium for Sanger and in many ways had the more difficult task of being first to publicly utter the term Sanger coined. In full vainglorious mode, Sanger wrote about the tour fifteen years later:

I had created a national public opinion in favor of birth control, had won the press to discuss the subject, had inspired the organization of leagues to carry on the work throughout the country, and had aroused the nation to a realization of its great moral duty toward woman-hood" (My Fight for Birth Control, p. 149).

A more magnanimous Emma Goldman emphasized Sanger's most impressive feat during this time. In reference to Family Limitation and its contraceptive recipes, Goldman wrote that while others agitated on the subject, "[Sanger] was the only woman in America in recent years to give information to women on birth control" (Emma Goldman, Living My Life, Volume II, New York, 1931, p. 553). Sanger claimed that twenty-thousand pamphlets were distributed during those three months in 1916 – the most immediate benefit to women provided by the tour. Undoubtedly for many women in need of fertility control, everything else was just talk.